Thursday, February 05, 2009

Lego Batman

Game developers are a cowardly and superstitious lot.Regular readers of The Dust Forms Words know that I've had a tumultuous relationship with the Lego games. The original Lego Star Wars was an upstanding gentleman of a game, but the sequels have done little more than steal beer from my fridge and pass out on my sofa. Lego Batman is the best and least stinky of those surly hoboes but it's still not the champion whom once I lionised.

The principle of the Lego videogame is simple; you walk into a world constructed of flimsy, breakable lego, and you start punching until your fists go numb. Repeat 30 times to complete the story mode, repeat 30 times more to finish the sidequests. It's a solid premise - who doesn't like punching stuff?

All these fisticuffs are, of course, dressed in the livery of a well-known franchise, and this time around it's Batman. This isn't the Batman of the recent movies, or even of the comics. It's instead a mash-up of the Tim Burton films and the animated series. It's a shallow exploration of the brand, and Batman devotees will be disappointed that the amount of fan-service on offer is approximately zero.

The place where Lego games go wrong is that the developers invariably feel that punching is somehow not enough, and throw some jumping into the mix. The jumping is the closest you will come in this life to feeling the tangible presence of Satan intruding into our mortal world. Apparently when a Lego minifig jumps it enters a kind of floaty demiplane where the rules of gravity warp and twist. Distance has no meaning and whether or not you land at your destination is dictated by variables understood only by MC Escher.

What's worse, platforms are possessed of a kind of malignant sentience and scorn the tread of your little Lego feet. Frequently you'll land squarely on a ledge only to watch your avatar drift inexplicably sideways as if compelled by magnets, before plummeting over the edge to its doom. For bonus laughs, occasionally you'll respawn only to immediately be victimised by the same deadly drift again.

The Lego games are built around the idea of co-operative play. At all times you have not one but two heroes on screen, and a friend with a second controller can drop in and out of the festivities at their whim. This worked well in the original Lego Star Wars but has been a cause of histrionics and grief ever since. Both players are bound to a single screen, despite some puzzles which really need you to split up. Attempting to move more than a screen away from your partner will drag them along behind you, usually to their death, or cause them to pop out of existence and respawn closer to you, sometimes in a location which is either fatal or inescapable.

There's no option to play two-player over XBox Live or the PlayStation Network, but that's okay because the co-op here is a friend-losing proposition anyway. Sadly, letting the computer control your buddy isn't much better, as the AI takes a cheerful pleasure in getting in your way, pushing you to your death, and refusing to help you with the co-operative puzzles.

The buggy AI may serve to distract you from the rest of the game, which is also riddled with glitches. Respawns occur in broken positions, secret canisters refuse to appear, characters get stuck in inappropriate animations, and Achievements inexplicably don't unlock. There's only so many times that you can write the woeful playtesting off as all part of the childlike joy of Lego before it becomes time to bring out the murderin' axe.

Just to round it all out, Lego Batman features some of the worst level design to every appear in a videogame. Distances can't be judged, threats can't be evaluated, and goals are seldom if ever clear. You can rarely tell what can be smashed up and what can't, and occasionally there are wierd hierachies at work (you can't destroy a street light until you first blow up its light bulb). Boss fights range from the repetitive to the obtuse, and key locations are obscured by horrible camera angles and unbreakable scenery.

That's the bad. There's some good, but none of it in any way compensates for the bad. I mention the good only to explain why Lego Batman is, while objectively awful, still a better game than Lego Indiana Jones.

First up, Batman is awesome. This has been proven by science. If you built a scale replica statue of Batman out of human crap, it would still be pretty awesome simply because it was Batman.

Secondly, there's a good roster of characters, and they're actually fun to use. You're shortchanged on the hero side, as you only get Batman, Robin, Nightwing and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl (and Nightwing looks like he fell into the mutant-vat). But for the villains you get no less than two costumes for the Joker, along with Poison Ivy, Bane, Mr Freeze, the Mad Hatter, Man-Bat, the Riddler, Catwoman, the Penguin, the Scarecrow, Hush, Ra's al-Ghul, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Clayface, Harley Quinn and, for some reason, Killer Moth. It would have been nice to see even more familiar faces such as Zsasz, Black Mask, Talia, Oracle, Azrael, Huntress, Spoiler, and the Cassandra Cain Batgirl, but it's nevertheless a solid list.

The music uses the Danny Elfman theme from the first Tim Burton Batman movie, which is a fine piece of music. Unfortunately, it uses it exclusively, again and again, until your ears are bleeding and you're begging for it to stop. Some variety might have been nice.

Combat has been tightened up from the previous games. The hard-to-target whip from Lego Indy is gone and some very satisfying fists and guns have replaced it. Getting into battle is no longer a chore. You might even enjoy it. Also, while there are still waves of endlessly-respawning enemies, there's notably less than in the last two Lego games, and they're less inclined to turn up while you're trying to do something fiddly.

That's pretty much all the good points. If you've enjoyed the prior Lego games you're in for a treat, because Lego Batman is very definitely an improvement, but if they frustrated you to tears then you'll find all the same mistakes on display in Lego Batman.


Scott Leis said...

Completely off-topic, but I don't know how else to contact you...
Please read this article regarding games classification:

Phrancq said...

I never had any problems with secret canisters, respawns in broken positions. Perhaps Travelers Tales just hate you.

Phrancq said...

Or achievements unlocking either.

Greg Tannahill said...

Hey Scott, thanks for the link.

I commented on this on the Kotaku thread, writing it off largely as a non-issue, but I might do a post on it in a bit.

The suggestion that MMOs which don't display classification may run afoul of our classification laws is a non-issue in and of itself. They're not classified because they CAN'T be meaningfully classified, and because they're not selling a player game content in Australia but rather giving them a ticket to access a virtual space which is physically located in America. It's one of the reasons Blizzard doesn't have servers on the Australian mainland.

It's more important in that it exposes the complete inadequacy of our classification law by way of a big-name example, and in a way that even the conservatives among our state A-Gs will not be happy with the current state of our legislation.

Once it's accepted the legislation's inadequate, change is placed squarely on the table, which makes it much harder for folks like Mr Atkinson to stall the discussion. And once the discussion's started, there's a much better chance of logic and common sense prevailing in the final result.

Greg Tannahill said...

Phrancq - cannister connected to the Joker signs on the villain plane level failed to appear properly on my and other people's systems (signs failed to react when shot in the correct area). Achievements Cobblepot School of Driving, League of Villains and Boy Wonder failed to unlock when conditions were met, or unlocked late (also one other than I can't immediately remember). On the sewer level with Killer Croc and the Penguin there are several respawn situations (which I encountered two of) that result in the computer player getting trapped in places they can't get out of or kill themselves, requiring you to activate the second controller so that you can "pop" them to where you are. In the final Joker level you can set up a situation where the position of both characters pulls the other one to their death, resulting in an unbreakable cycle of death and respawns.

Phrancq said...

That's all well and good, just saying that I never had any of those problems. The game was bug free for me. AI problems are another matter, though.